Experiences as a mentor for the LEAD SA/Irish Rule of Law Mentorship Programme

August 1st, 2017
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By Ian Jacobsberg

I had the privilege of acting as mentor for the Commercial Law Programme run jointly by the Law Society of South Africa’s (LSSA) Legal Education and Development (LEAD) division and Irish Rule of Law, an initiative of the Law Society of Ireland and the Irish Bar Council, for three consecutive years, from 2012 to 2015.

The programme originated from a recognition on the part of the participating practitioner bodies of the reality that the historical inequalities that the South African commercial world inherited from the days of the Apartheid government, pervaded the legal profession and just as much as, in business, could not be properly redressed by legislation alone. As the doors of commercial activities were opening to small and medium-sized, black-owned businesses, it was expected that there would be an increase in the demand for legal services tailored to their needs and financial resources more than the few large corporate firms in the major urban centres would be able to offer. At the same time, the majority of lawyers from historically disadvantaged backgrounds – who had not grown up as their white counterparts had – in an environment where discussion and understanding of business and commerce were common place, were often ill-equipped to offer growing businesses the advice they required. At the same time, while preferential procurement policies were opening up opportunities to historically disadvantaged lawyers to secure valuable commercial mandates from parastatals and other corporates, their lack of appropriate experience rendered them unable to provide the level of service such work demanded. These practitioners were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they were afforded.

As a result the mentorship programme was conceived, involving placement of a practitioner from a smaller firm in the corporate or commercial department of an established firm for a period of approximately three months. The practitioner was attached to a commercial partner in the host firm, in a manner similar to a candidate attorney, with a view to observing and learning about his or her matters, clients and practice and of the host firm in general.

Over the period that I participated in the programme, I acted as mentor to three different practitioners, all sole practitioners in charge of small firms based in Pretoria, but all unique in terms of personalities and the types of practices they ran. Before starting the programme, they were asked to sign a contract, acknowledging, among other things, that, in return for being exposed to our practice and clients, they would observe the strict confidentiality of that information. During their time with us, they were exposed to all aspects of the practice, including meeting with clients and others, drafting of agreements, letters and other documents for clients and general practice administration. What was notable (but with hindsight probably to be expected) was that the areas where all the mentees had the most to learn was not so much theoretical knowledge of the law, or even how to apply it practically in given situations. Those skills are learned at law school, or relatively quickly in the course of articles and a year or two in practice. Also, being in charge of their own practices, all of them actually had a better handle on practice administration than many partners in large corporate firms, who all too quickly and too happily become reliant on an army of secretaries, bookkeepers and IT assistants. Where I found the mentees had the most to learn was usually in understanding the strategic significance of a specific transaction for a client’s business, and, therefore, how the negotiation and drafting should be approached. Also, and probably most noticeably, all of the mentees, to a greater or lesser extent, were unaware of the importance of marketing their practices and how to go about it, especially on a limited budget. A lot of time was spent discussing this.

While I am certain all the mentees learnt much that they might not have had the opportunity to see and experience in their own practices, ultimately the benefit of the experience, like any opportunity, is what they made of it. I can only hope they found it invaluable, and I assume that they did, as at least two of them stayed in touch for some while afterwards, seeking guidance from time to time.

As a mentor, I experienced the truth of an old adage that the best way of learning is often to teach, because it forces you to make sure you know what you are talking about, and I certainly found myself thinking consciously about several things which, over years in practice, had become automatic. But most importantly, the feeling of assisting the success of others, and benefitting, in however small a way, the profession, the developing business community and the national economy was the most rewarding part of it all.

Why should experienced attorneys volunteer to mentor other attorneys?

According to Chief Executive Officer of the LSSA and Director of LEAD most successful attorneys accept that a critical component to their success came from some form of mentorship. It may not have been a formal relationship, but there were people who impacted their professional lives by providing assistance and guidance. ‘We need mentors in the profession more than ever due to the changing client needs, transformational requirements, evolving technologies and new competition. Today’s attorneys need to seek out fresh areas of practice and mentors can play a role in helping mentees to identify new areas’ said Mr Swart.

Mr Swart added that not all mentorship arrangements work out for a variety of reasons, however, those that do work, work very well. Mr Swart invited attorneys to become mentors. ‘With your help, our mentorship programme will achieve greatness and sustainability for the profession. I invite experienced attorneys to become mentors by signing up on www.LSSALEAD.org.za and share their knowledge and experiences with attorneys from other firms,’ he said.

Ian Jacobsberg BA LLB (Wits) is an attorney at Hogan Lovells in Johannesburg.

This article was first published in De Rebus in 2017 (August) DR 16.

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